“Where do babies come from?” can be categorized as one of the most dreaded questions parents face. And as much as many would love to avoid answering that question, it’s one that has to be addressed. But that’s for another time (when you’re older, ha!).
What many parents don’t anticipate is when our children become curious about the other gender. We start to notice behaviors that make us uncomfortable (ex: lifting someone’s skirt) or hear inappropriate jokes (ex: “wow, her boobs are so big!”). Usually after dying from embarrassment, we’re not sure how to deal with such behavior and comments, so we put them off, hoping (praying) that our sweet angels will outgrow such nonsense.
Well I’ve got good news and bad news. Always the bad news first. The bad news is that that curiosity doesn’t magically go away. In fact, if their inquisitiveness is not addressed, it will fester. And as they get older and have greater access to our handy-dandy friend, the Internet, they will find ways to satisfy their interest in the other. We all know what that means-nothing good, and in fact, something potentially harmful and traumatic.
Now, the good news! These moments of mortification are actually incredible opportunities for learning. They’re what I love to call teachable moments. I’ve broken down things to consider when addressing a situation if it happens in your home (or you know, at the store or school or any-old-where).
Pay Attention: This is actually the step before a situation occurs. Kids model what they see and hear. So you can tell them all day long not to comment on other people’s appearances, but if you or their other parent is always criticizing how someone looks (including yourself), that’s what they are going to pick up on. This also applies to the kind of media they’re exposed to. Consider the shows or movies your kids watch. How do the characters talk to each other? Is there any emphasis on physical appearance? Is there any focus on sexual behavior? Is humor displayed by criticizing how other people look or behave? And here’s the next really important thing to pay attention to-how do the adults (i.e. yourself and other caregivers in the room) watching those shows react to scenes? Do they laugh at other people’s misfortunes? Do they think it’s funny when someone is degraded?
My kids don’t always enjoy watching TV with me because I will stop a show, point out a comment or behavior, and ask them, “what do you think about this? Do you think it’s ok to treat a friend that way? Do you think it’s ok to talk to someone like that?” I have no shame in telling my kids that we will discuss a scene after the movie is over.
Notice their Reaction: Just as you’re noticing what they’re being exposed to and how the adults in their life are reacting to it, notice how your child reacts to what they see. Do they close their eyes during a kissing scene? Do they cover their ears when it gets too loud or tense? Do they try to sneak to watch scenes that are not appropriate for their age? All of those reactions and behaviors are messages. Their little bodies trying to communicate discomfort and/or curiosity. It’s our job to notice that and give them a safe space to process it.
Acknowledge It: Which is the next step. Provide that safe space for them to identify what it is they are feeling. Maybe they just saw a music video with half-naked women dancing proactively and you notice that your sons are now lifting up their shirts and dancing sillily around the living room. When that happens, acknowledge it without judgment. So if it normally cracks you up to see them do that, reign it in. If you’re about to explode because you find it offensive, go scream into a pillow first. These conversations are most effective when kids feel safe to express themselves and that can’t happen if they think they’re entertaining you or disappointing you.
Identify your Values: This step is actually best to work through before you find yourselves in these situations. Which is what you’re doing now! Consider what you want your child to know about men, women, non-binary, and trans individuals. How do you want them to treat people who are different from them? How do you want your child to express their curiosity for something or someone that is different? Many families don’t want women objectified. So honor or respect is a value. When you reinforce your family values, you’re not shaming their behavior. You’re emphasizing what matters instead and asking them to discontinue behavior or words that do not reflect or support that particular value.
Real Life: So what does this all actually look like? Here’s a scenario:
You notice your oldest son is lifting up his shirt and pretending that he is showing off his breasts. He’s dancing around, saying silly things, trying to get his younger brother to laugh.
Here’s one way to make this a teachable moment: “Hey, kiddo, what are you doing?” (Obviously, you know what he’s doing, but it’s important that he acknowledges and explains what he’s doing). He may not answer you directly and just respond with, “Oh nothing.” Or he may say, “Making brother laugh!” If he says, “Oh nothing,” don’t let him out of it. Reflect back what you saw him doing, “I noticed that you were lifting up your shirt and acting like you were showing off your breasts. Is that something you find funny?” Again, do say this in a very non-judgmental, curious tone. Listen to what he says, if anything at all. Affirm his curiosity. “It’s normal to be curious about another gender’s body.” Then convey your value, “But we don’t show respect to women when we dance around like that and pretend to be them by lifting up their shirts and exposing their breasts.” Then get his buy-in, “Do you think that shows respect to women?” The purpose of this question isn’t to shame him; it’s to hold him accountable for his behavior while also instilling important values. “I know that your brother seems to think it’s pretty funny, but do you think there are other ways we can get brother to laugh without objectifying a woman’s body?” Now you’re moving into solution-mode and brainstorming alternative ways to get brother to laugh. Hopefully, you’re able to come up with some creative ways to get brother to laugh with your son. In the meantime, you’ve stopped the offensive behavior and sent a clear message.
Later, I would encourage you to check in with your oldest. Validate the changed behavior. “I really appreciated you acknowledging how dancing like that could be hurtful to women and that you were so creative at coming up with more respectful ways of making brother laugh!”
Situations may not go as smoothly as this one did. That’s ok. The point isn’t to be perfect. The point is to have as many conversations that are infused with your family’s values as possible. With the goal being to raise sexually healthy, responsible adults who are aware that their behaviors and words matter. And to remember, that we are the example and the gatekeepers. You got this!